Last night, I watched wrestling. This is admittedly nothing new. Since the advent of the WWE Network, I watch wrestling every day, sometimes for hours. I’m writing a book of poetry about wrestling, I run a few Tumblrs about wrestling—it all comes with the territory. But last night I watched Raw, which I haven’t gotten a chance to do much this summer because the work that I’ve done this summer and the reason I do it often leaves me scrambling to bask in the warm glow of nostalgia. Though I can’t imagine a scenario where my friends and I don’t gather in my new house to watch the WWE Network’s less-than-stellar stream of Summerslam this Sunday, anything going on right now serves as a less-than-welcome reminder that soon enough I’ll be sitting down in front of a computer to listen to the rich talk about the problems inherent with having only a million dollars put away in an IRA. But it’s Hulk Hogan’s birthday, and even though The Hulkster now exists largely to talk about the virtues of the WWE Network (which, at 700,000 subscribers paying $9.99 a month to watch video footage Vince McMahon acquired for pennies on the dollar, is somehow considered a failure because the world of business has rules as made up, impenetrable, stupid, and fake as professional wrestling), I love the big orange bastard and always will. True fact: I went to WrestleMania XXX this year mostly because I wanted to see a 60 year old man rip his shirt off and flex his ancient muscles. When he messed up and called the Superdome the Silverdome (where he body slammed Andre the Giant some 27 WretleManias earlier), I was the only person in the arena not booing, because that was my WrestleMania, brother. The one in Detroit. The one that set the records. The Greatest Night In the History of Our Sport.
I had to get through three hours of Raw for Hulk Hogan’s birthday celebration, which, frankly, is insane. Exactly zero things on television this side of a holiday marathon of The Twilight Zone should last three hours, but that’s exactly what Raw does: It lasts. It staggers. It lurches. It finishes, out of breath and somehow overtime, maneuvering its various pieces around in an effort to hide the fact that nothing is happening. The recurring theme of an episode of Raw these days is the price point of the WWE Network, where, oddly, you can’t watch Raw, because even though Vince McMahon has cast his lot with the future, he still finds his business shackled to the mediums of the past. 700,000 is, to me, an impressive number of human beings who are willing to pay for access to a staggering number of frankly mediocre wrestling shows, but the last I checked, the average episode of Raw manages to pull in 3,000,000, and they sit through ads for things like Juicy Drop Pops and Sonic Chili Cheese Dogs. They’ll sit through the not-infrequent advertisements that air during an episode of Raw, too, where the comedic wrestlers on the show shill food or beverage in a way that makes me wish I couldn’t ingest things. But I can, and I do. Often during wrestling. Tonight, it was curry. Sunday, when my $9.99 will allow me to watch Summerslam? Who knows? Summerslam was the focus of tonight’s episode of Raw, as all of the men and women who will have matches on the show did their bit to advance their storyline to the point where that match would take on some semblance of meaning. Some of the matches on Summerslam, you can tell, are just there to eat the clock. While I know a lot of people are looking forward to Dean Ambrose vs. Seth Rollins, and while I suppose it makes a certain amount of sense that a feud based on one man’s quest to hunt down another who keeps running away would come to a head in a lumberjack match—that’s a match where the ring is surrounded by the wrestlers who will not be wrestling that evening—Ambrose and Rollins work much better when they have the arena as their playground. Similarly, an old-school Russia vs. USA Flag Match—the winner is the man who retrieves his flag from a pole that rises high above the ring—seems like a fun idea, but the WWE writer’s room stopped having interesting-if-poorly-informed things to say about the current political situation in Russia a few months ago, and Tea Party Patriot cum hirsute manager Zeb Coulter (picture Yosemite Sam on a fly fishing trip) constantly making reference to Rocky and Bullwinkle isn’t going to make Rocky IV feel any fresher in 2014.
But WWE can do a remarkable job of promoting a big match, and that is the axis upon which Summerslam revolves, the WWE World Heavyweight Championship clash between 15-time champion John Cena and unleashed Kraken Brock Lesnar. I like John Cena. I really like John Cena. I think the first John Cena match I saw was against Rob Van Dam at a WWE-produced revival of Extreme Championship Wrestling, a 90s entity that is responsible for revolutionizing wrestling in a number of ways large and small, one of which was to turn every professional wrestling fan over the age of 25 into an overly-entitled rage monster. I wasn’t watching wrestling much in 2006, but I remembered and liked ECW, so I went to a Buffalo Wild Wings in Taylor, Michigan to watch the somewhat local ECW legend Van Dam (from Battle Creek, MI) finally ascend to the WWE Championship (something I’d “borrowed” my mom’s credit card a few times to see in 2001, though Van Dam never clinched the title). ECW One Night Stand took place in the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City, which was a major hotbed for the organization when it was a real thing and not a marketing tool, and which remains a magnet for large independent wrestling events to this day. When John Cena’s music hit, 2,460 adult human beings really got on John Cena’s case for daring to be a professional wrester. He wore jean shorts, sneakers, and useless sweatbands, sure, but watching Cena go to work in that environment, 2,460 human adults chanting things like “Cena swallows” (a “hardcore” addendum to the time-tested chant of “Cena sucks”), I was won over by him immediately. By the time the people in the Buffalo Wild Wings, several thousand miles from New York City, started joining in on the chants emanating from the Hammerstein Ballroom, I knew I had a new favorite wrestler.
And so it’s been for me since then, which is a decision that’s treated me well. I’m into wrestling for the wrestling matches these days, and more often than not, on big shows, against big opponents, John Cena has one hell of a match. My favorite John Cena match in the past few years was the one that he had against Brock Lesnar at Extreme Rules in 2012, a stupidly named and often poorly booked show of “hardcore” matches that exists as a way to get a few thousand extra orders on a show that isn’t WrestleMania or Summerslam and that should go away post-haste, since the WWE Network exists, and, for $9.99, I’d watch WWE Singles Match if that’s what they wanted to call the damn thing. Cena vs. Lesnar had happened before, when John Cena was new and Brock Lesnar was thinking about quitting wrestling to try out for the National Football League, but I wasn’t watching and neither man was the symbol they’d become by the time 2012 brought Lesnar back to the world of fake fighting. Cena was the face of the WWE. Lesnar had gone legit, capturing the UFC Heavyweight Championship and maneuvering that sport towards an atmosphere that looked and sounded a lot like WWE, just without the benefit of goosed narratives. Diverticulitis took Lesnar out of the UFC, and a gigantic contract brought him back to a limited schedule of dates for the WWE. Now he functions much like Godzilla: When a major event comes around, he surfaces, wrecks a bunch of stuff, and leaves. He is the closest thing we have on this planet to a legitimate movie monster, and he is a glorious thing to behold. I love John Cena, but I want to see Brock Lesnar break him in half. I want him to make it look easy, like he’s hanging out on his ranch, shooting rifles with his brother, and eating a pile of terrible submarine sandwiches. Because John Cena is at his absolute best against guys like Lesnar, who are so good at the work they’ve been put here to do that they hate that work and the people who’d pay to witness it. Cena is great when he has to work for something, and ridding the WWE of the guy who crushed The Undertaker at WrestleMania, whose 21-0 streak going into WrestleMania XXX was the only thing in wrestling that could be said to mean more than any given title, is the only something left.
This episode of Raw presented something of a debate between Lesnar—represented by his advocate, Paul Heyman—and Cena; two extended interview segments that were both quite good. Heyman rapped, which, when you’re a 48-year-old man who was once prominently billed as “The Psycho Yuppie,” sounds more like Dr. Seuss than N.W.A., and Cena spoke largely about passion, how he has it, and how Lesnar’s lack of it means that he doesn’t deserve the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Heyman hit his peak a few weeks ago when he brought Lesnar out as the man who would conquer John Cena’s 15th reign as champion and has been coasting a bit since—making fun of Cena’s origins as the horrible white rapper from the mean streets of West Newbury has been a thing since Cena was that character—but that’s kind of the point. He’s the dude standing behind King Kong. He doesn’t need to try very hard, because even a subpar effort from Paul Heyman on the microphone is museum quality compared to anybody else in the game.
This was made painfully obvious by the evening’s other large piece of non-physical storytelling, the ongoing saga of Brie Bella and Stephanie McMahon. An offshoot of last summer’s program that saw the rise of bearded populist hero Daniel Bryan in the face of a heartless corporate power structure that didn’t get why arenas across the country were making a big deal out of a guy they’d branded “goat face,” Bryan’s triumph at WrestleMania XXX (he beat Triple H, the head of the Authority, and then defeated Randy Orton and Batista to become the WWE World Heavyweight Champion) quickly turned sour, as his father died and he suffered a severe neck injury. This has caused him to relinquish the championship and largely disappear from television as he rehabs en route to an eventual return. Since, they’ve shunted the Bryan vs. Authority storyline to Brie Bella and Stephanie McMahon, the wives (in reality and in wrestling) of Bryan and Triple H.
Sometimes, when Stephanie McMahon is leading Brie through segments, everything is fine. Stephanie McMahon has grown considerably as a character over the past 15 years of her being in the spotlight, and is perhaps the second best Evil Boss character in the history of the medium, behind only her father. Brie Bella…is not good at talking. That’d be fine in a reality television show, where she actually thrives, but in a storyline that requires her to garner sympathy from an arena full of angry dudes, it’s going to take more than blackmailing the boss and calling her a bitch every week to get people invested. So this week, Stephanie brought out Daniel Bryan’s personal trainer, who awkwardly admitted to having an affair with the former champion, Brie’s husband, etc. This was, I guess, supposed to embarrass Brie Bella, but the segment was mostly terrible because, for starters, the woman playing the physical therapist was an atrocious actor even by wrestling standards. McMahon intimating Bryan’s cries “Yes! Yes! Yes!” in a tone suggesting the fake pornographic moans of an Herbal Essences commercial was funny, and I guess it makes sense that a heel would resort to slutshaming (the poor physical therapist is there in the corner watching McMahon imitate her during sex) in an effort to make the live fans cheer for Brie, but I checked out on this angle around the time McMahon was thrown into a gigantic kiddie pool of human waste, and whatever loyalty I have to Daniel Bryan doesn’t automatically transfer over to his spouse, because that isn’t how well-developed characters are created. Still, McMahon vs. Bella is the second most important match on the second most important show on the WWE calendar, and the crowd absolutely eats it up whenever the two get into a physical confrontation. There’s probably something to be said about the fact that these confrontations have been built around the signature moves of their husbands, but I’m not swimming through the kiddie pool of human waste to retrieve it. Therein you’ll probably also find a salient point about the biggest insult hurled by McMahon or Bella, beyond “bitch,” is the insinuation that Brie Bella is not good at sexually satisfying Daniel Bryan, which is, I guess, the job you sign up for when you get married.
Finally, Brock Lesnar crashed Hulk Hogan’s birthday party, because of course he did. “Party’s over, grandpa,” he said, leering like the villain of an 80s film. Brock Lesnar is there to beat up the collective childhoods of everybody in that arena—beyond Hogan, the ring had filled with Roddy Piper, Ric Flair, the nWo of Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, “Mean” Gene Okerlund, Jimmy Hart, and “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff. John Cena saved the day, because of course he did, but that doesn’t matter much. Nothing happened between he and Lesnar, because that can wait until Sunday, until Summerslam, until you’ve given up $9.99 for it and the rest of the card. Before those two had their final confrontation, and before all of the old-timers came out and Scott Hall had a bit of fun running through his old nWo catchphrases and Hogan ripped off his red and yellow Hulkamania shirt to reveal the black and white New World Order shirt beneath, Gene Okerlund directed Hogan’s attention to the video screen, where a legitimately touching tribute to Hogan played. It was set to Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” Hulk Hogan is 61 now, and while he can come out and run through the catchphrases and rip his shirt off and do the same bodybuilding poses I saw as a four-year old, he’s never going to wrestle again. Time has officially caught up to Hulk Hogan, and seeing clips of him dropping leg after leg to Dylan was strange at first, somehow dissonant to what Hogan was, until it hit me that, well, it kind of fit. The Ultimate Warrior died this year. Randy Savage died in 2011.”When you turn 61-years-young,” Hogan said, bringing down the energy after mustering a bit of that vintage Hogan hype, “you start to reflect back on a few things.”
Nothing Hogan could say on a night that ended with him cutting into a birthday cake festooned with candles spelling out “9.99” was going to reach the zenith of what turned out to be the final public appearance of The Ultimate Warrior, but last night, The Immortal Hulk Hogan pondered his mortality. And while the footage of his staring down Brock Lesnar will likely be replayed over and over for the next year, if not longer, the fact that there was no physical altercation between the two—not even Lesnar shoving Hogan to the mat, which would have blown the roof off of the building—speaks volumes about what Hulk Hogan is capable of in 2014. Hulkamania may be willing, brother, but all the training, prayers, and vitamins in the world can’t stop time. Beyond a paycheck, this is why someone like Hulk Hogan might be interested in forking over $9.99 for the WWE Network. Not for Summerslam, which will be there regardless, but because he’ll be dropping legs and shredding t-shirts on it forever, immortal, as promised. For a wrestler—for the wrestler—that’s not a bad legacy.
- Paul Heyman addressed Brock Lesnar’s upcoming match against John Cena by “rapping.” Since he did so without a beat, one could even say he freestyled.
- Roman Reigns def. RybAxel (Ryback and Curtis Axel) via disqualification.
- Bray Wyatt and Chris Jericho had a face-to-face confrontation that was lifted entirely from The Silence of the Lambs.
- Seth Rollins def. Rob Van Dam via pinfall. After the match, Dean Ambrose emerged from a giant gift box to attack Rollins, who ran away through the crowd.
- Stephanie McMahon interviewed Daniel Bryan’s physical therapist, who admitted to having an affair with Bryan. This led Bryan’s wife, Brie Bella, to slap the therapist and attack McMahon, putting her in Bryan’s signature finishing maneuver, the Yes! Lock.
- Jack Swagger def. Cesaro via submission. He then stared down Rusev, their inactivity a metaphor for the Cold War.
- Eva Marie def. WWE Diva’s Champion AJ Lee by pinfall due to a distraction by Paige, who then read a terrible poem to mock her “frienemy,” which is an awful word to hear a trio of middle-aged men repeat seven or eight times in six minutes.
- John Cena called out Brock Lesnar, who did not respond.
- Brie Bella vs. Stephanie McMahon did not occur, as Brie Bella was arrested for assaulting Daniel Bryan’s physical therapist.
- Heath Slater def. Dolph Ziggler via count-out, as The Miz was distracting Ziggler from the announce table.
- Randy Orton def. WWE United States Champion Sheamus by pinball.
- Hulk Hogan’s birthday party was interrupted by Brock Lesnar. The assembled old folks there to celebrate Hogan’s 61 years of Hulkamania running wild were saved from a beating by John Cena. Rather than fight, Lesnar ditched the ring, saving the inevitable clash for this Sunday’s Summerslam.
For no reason other than that they played him down to the ring to it last night, be sure to listen to Paul Orndorff’s brilliant theme song: